30 years since its release, the undersung "The King of Comedy" seems finally to be edging into the sun to take its deserved place as not just one of the finest, smartest and most daring Martin Scorsese movies, but one of the greatest American satire movies, period. It's an excoriating, often excruciating watch, boasting razor-sharp insights into the excesses of celebrity culture and the quest for fame, but it's also, most unforgettably, a character study of one Rupert Pupkin, delusional sociopath, shit-poor comedian and all-out creep. Pupkin, whom Robert De Niro doesn't so much inhabit as crawl into, is simply one of the most offputting creations ever committed to celluloid -- a dreadful squit of a man, talentless, self-aggrandizing, self-deceiving, pathetic -- and at the same time one of the most compelling. In fact, it's easy to see why its greatest asset is also perhaps the chief reason the film bombed all those years ago: Pupkin is cringingly, writhingly, cover-your-eyes-and-hide-behind-the-sofa difficult to watch, let alone gaze at unflinchingly, as does Scorsese's camera, for nearly two hours. The film, which closes this year's Tribeca Film Festival on Saturday evening in a restored print, met with a mixed critical reception too, some immediately hailing its discomfiting genius, others rejecting it outright. Pauline Kael, a member of the latter camp referred to Pupkin as "a nothing." Respectfully, we disagree. He's much, much less than that.
De Niro's Rupert Pupkin, goes down below zero, below nothing, into negative space, becoming, in the process, one of the absolute finest examples of the cinematic antihero we've ever seen. It's a tradition in which De Niro and Scorsese had previously set a high watermark with Travis Bickle in 1976's seminal "Taxi Driver," and it got us thinking about other examples of this most awkward, and most potentially illuminating, of archetypes.
First, a note: the term "antihero" has been misapplied so often that it has kind of evolved a legitimate second definition (flawed hero with a dark side; villain we can't help admiring) but, traditionalists that we are, we're having none of that, so let's talk about how we drew up the parameters for this short sampler, shall we? In classic literary criticism terms, an antihero is a central character in whom are absent any heroic qualities. So we're not talking about this alcoholic-but-dedicated cop or that morally ambiguous nighttime crusader. The antiheroes we're highlighting are not motivated by a desire for justice, or defense of the weak. They are not brave, they are not admirable. They are not cool. This is not a list where you'll find Wolverine or Snake Plissken or Tyler Durden (though the Ed Norton "Fight Club" character might qualify, thorny identity issues aside). Even Tony Montana and Don Corleone don't quite suit our purposes -- there's an operatic glamor to their tragic, violent arcs that is too impressive for the sort of unsexy loserdom we want to celebrate here.
In fact, we went back to our inspiration and simply applied what we now call The Pupkin Rule: whatever you think of the character, is there even a sneaking part of you that would like to be him? If the answer's no: antihero. And that is, we think, the crux of it, and the reason why the antihero can be a place of such profound and uncomfortable truth: if a hero is a guy who in some way you want to be, then the antihero is the one who, in your downest moments, you're kind of afraid you are.
Johnny (David Thewlis) in Mike Leigh's "Naked" (1993)
"If you want to establish sympathy with your main character," we remember reading in a screenwriting book once, "have him help an old person, small child or animal in the opening scenes." The first thing we see Johnny, the protagonist of Mike Leigh's brilliant and harrowing "Naked" do is commit a rape. And an unambiguous, graphic rape at that. There's a challenge implicit in an opening as shocking as that: we dare you to watch this guy, we dare you to become interested in his story. And yet we do, because Johnny is a brilliantly compelling creation, a fireball of snarling, spitting, class-inflected rage, intellectual snobbery and genuine intelligence who spews out bile and brilliance in roughly equal measures to anyone who'll listen, and many who won't, as he wends his eccentric way round the streets of a seedier part of London, and in and out of the lives of his ex-girlfriend (Lesley Sharpe), her flatmate (Katrin Cartlidge) and their landlord (Greg Cruttwell). David Thewlis gives an absolutely towering performance, easily the best thing he's ever done (and on the strength of which we've been duped into forking out good money for dreck like "The Island of Dr. Moreau"), and under Leigh's direction the film becomes a masterclass in pivoting our sympathy and attention around this grotesque axis. But perhaps the most disturbing and clever thing about the film's shape is that by the end Johnny -- serial bully, psychological terrorist, misogynist (or maybe just vicious misanthrope), rapist -- is in fact, not the villain of the piece (that "honor" goes to the landlord) and as detestable a human as he is, he is recognisably a human being.
Howard Beale (Peter Finch) in Sidney Lumet's "Network" (1976)
He may have the most memorable line ("I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore") and it may have been a role that won Peter Finch a posthumous Oscar, but the thing that qualifies Howard Beale from Sidney Lumet's "Network" as an antihero, is just what a patsy he is. Buffeted about on the tides of his own manic disorder, and borne up and down by the whims and agendas of other, more coldly calculating characters, Beale is a tragic figure whose weaknesses are manipulated by others to boost TV ratings, and who is discarded (with extreme prejudice) once his usefulness ends. In the (just barely) exaggerated world of Lumet's fictional TV station, Beale's fatal flaw is that aside from being clearly in the throes of a breakdown, he is maybe the only honest person there, and his passionate and increasingly lunatic ravings actually come from a genuine if ineffectual desire to see things change. And as long as that plays to an audience, the powers that be, best personified by a sub-zero chilly Faye Dunaway as the cunning, amoral and ambitious Head of Programming, let him rant and rave on. In many ways "Network" is a companion piece to "The King of Comedy" as a biting satire on media consumption, but Beale doesn't even have Pupkin's agency. He's playing a game that he doesn't understand the rules of, against Grand Masters: he's destined to lose, and he does.
Eddie Coyle (Robert Mitchum) in Peter Yates' "The Friends of Eddie Coyle" (1973)
What would happen if you took one of those Robert Mitchum characters from a 1940s film noir or crime pic, aged him thirty years, and took away his cool? That's Eddie Coyle. A brilliant, minor-key riff on (rather than outright deconstruction of) the Mitchum persona of his earlier years, the Coyle featured in the gritty, unglamorised Boston underworld of Peter Yates's terrific "The Friends of Eddie Coyle" is so small-time as to be practically minute, and so long in the game as to be practically respectable. Aging and wearying of his crooked career the same way a guy who's worked in the post office for 40 years might, Coyle does the single least noble thing he can do: in order to stay out of prison he resolves to turn snitch. But in true antihero form, he can't even do that right -- bothersome conscience aside, he ends up fingering guys who've already been caught and whose names are no use to the police, and ends up ultimately being set up to take the fall by a more cunning rat than himself. And the fall, when it comes, is so anticlimactic as to be maybe the perfect antiheroic end: passed out drunk, his pants soiled from a dropped beer that looks like a urine stain, Eddie is shot in the head in a moving car, before it and his body are abandoned in the parking lot of a bowling alley. It's one of Mitchum's greatest performances, because for a guy whose stock in trade was the laconic, morally ambiguous guy with a palpable air of danger, with Eddie Coyle he manages to turn down the volume on that bristling charisma, and show us someone not just broken, but desperate.